Symphony No. 1 in C major, Op. 21
Related Artists/CompaniesLudwig van Beethoven
National Symphony Orchestra: Christoph Eschenbach, conductor / Christian Tetzlaff, violin, plays Widmann - Feb. 27 - Mar. 1, 2014
Christian Tetzlaff's "sheer, explosive virtuosity" (The New York Times) comes to the fore in Widmann's Violin Concerto. Beethoven's First and Second Symphonies frame the program, completing the NSO's recent Beethoven cycle.
About the Work
The score, dedicated to Baron Gottfried van Swieten, calls for pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns and trumpets, with timpani and strings. Duration, 26 minutes.
In launching himself as a symphonist, at the end of the century in which Haydn had defined the terms of the symphony, Beethoven quite understandably showed his respect for his revered teacher, and very likely felt it was only appropriate that he demonstrate his mastery of established practice before venturing a more individual style. Nonetheless, barely a year after the premiere, a Leipzig critic condemned the First Symphony as "the outrageous effrontery of a young man," and nine years later still, a writer in Paris complained of Beethoven's "prodigal use of the most barbaric dissonances" in the work. Evidently no one at the premiere had any problem with the symphony, however; one Viennese critic, in fact, recorded these altogether positive impressions:
Beethoven has written his First Symphony in C major. It is a masterpiece which does equal honor to his power of invention and his musical skill. It is as beautiful and excellent in design as in execution; a clear and radiant order reigns, and the work is marked by such a stream of the most pleasant melodies, as well as such a rich but never fatiguing instrumentation, that this symphony may be rightly considered the equal of any by Mozart or Haydn.This work could not, however, be mistaken for a symphony by Mozart or Haydn. The first movement is a conventional enough Allegro con brio with a brief Adagio molto introduction, but in the shape of the theme, and especially in the orchestral coloring, Beethoven is already identifying himself on his own terms. His use of the winds in particular is unostentatiously quite ingenious, as it is throughout the work.
The slow movement (Andante cantabile con moto) differs from the typical Haydn example to the same degree, though again clearly grounded on Haydn's principles. The third movement, which Hector Berlioz called "the one truly original thing in this symphony," is a more striking departure from the established norm: although labeled Menuetto, it is actually the first of Beethoven's symphonic scherzos, music with which, in Lawrence Gilman's words, he "took a leap into a new world."
Following a provocative Adagio introduction, the spirited finale (Allegro molto e vivace) is alive with breezy self-confidence, exhibited in the form of audacious rhythmic twists and unexpected wind coloring. Here the distinctly Beethovian wit and even the comic gestures do seem to prepare the way for the revolutionary and defiant figure who would reveal himself once over the threshold of the new century, extending the boundaries of the genre as dramatically as Haydn had done before him--to such a degree, in fact, as to invite the further extensions in the way of both form and content that were to come tumbling after him in the hundred years after his death.
In this last important symphony to be composed and introduced in the eighteenth century, the dedication to Gottfried van Swieten may be seen as both a gesture of personal appreciation and another link to the most glorious of Beethoven's immediate musical forebears. Baron van Swieten (1734-1803), who served for a time as director of the Imperial Court Library as well as Austrian ambassador to Berlin and London, was a remarkable musical gadfly who was among the first in Viennese circles to recognize the young Beethoven's gifts and encourage him. Earlier he had championed the music of Bach and Handel and had a productive influence on both Haydn and Mozart. He commissioned symphonies from Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, commissioned Mozart's orchestrations of Handel oratorios (Messiah among them), and persuaded Haydn to compose his oratorios The Creation and The Seasons, for which he also supplied the texts and, for the former, the German translation.